Posts tagged sci-fi

A few words about Her

Spike Jonze’s Her may well become one of the most important movies of the 21st century. Not one of the best — even though it is indeed good — but one of the movies that every so often serious philosophers and essayists will refer to in their tracts. Her will be influential: beyond setting clear and elegant objectives for computer interface designers, it’ll also provide ample food for thought on all debates digital. Two days after watching, my plate is still quite full, and no review I’ve read yet has addressed most of my thoughts about the film.

I should note I’ll be pretty careless about spoilers from now on, so you may want to stop reading.

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Her, then, takes place in an unspecified near future on the bright side of the Kondratieff wave; I’d say thirty years for now. Los Angeles is presented with a lot more skyscapers and people seem to commute via monorail, but Spike Jonze is too tasteful never to show The Future. Buildings are ‘borrowed’ from present-day Shangai, the monorail is never shown and merely hinted by the interior shots of train cars that seem oddly elevated, and the only Automobiles of the Future depicted are a boring-looking taxi and a cartoon car in a computer game Theodore watches his friend Amy play. Futuristics are almost totally removed from Her (except for a tasteless reference to a "China-India merger" that should have ended in the cutting room floor). People dress much like nowadays, even if high-waisted trousers and pastel colors seem to be particularily fashionable, and there’s some kind of fuss about polo shirts.

I also got the impression people are very slightly dumb whenever communication is not mediated. Most of their talking is to computers, after all.

Her goes back to something science-fiction writers and filmmakers at the dawn of the computer age knew very well: the ultimate interface is a conversational interface. Not Minority Report-like techno-gestures. Specialized tasks such as playing computer games may require different UIs (we see Theodore play an RPG with some kind of holographic Kinect), but common tasks such as writing, messaging, checking the mail or getting the news are done via a audio interface. A discreet earplug has replaced the smartphone, an auxiliary cigarbox-like small tablet provides a camera and a screen for reading or looking at images. It’s ‘wearable’ only in the sense Theodore secures it in his shirt pocket with a clip. The devices look simple not only because of miniaturization, but because extremely large bandwidth and pervasive connectivity mean that each of the devices we see Theodore using — the earplug, the clamshell tablet, the desktop screen — is probably an extremely dumb terminal. Each device is connected to a cloud ‘software agent’ that brokers tasks and communication, so people are never seen wondering which app should they use to talk to someone else. Hence OS-1, the Artificial Intelligence operating system that I believe must run on some kind of ‘cloud’ infrastructure.

Samantha, then, may be seen as Theodore’s personal OS-1 account, or ‘theme’. I have read badly-written reviews of Her panning the film because Samantha sounds ‘too human’, as if it would be better if Theodore was a weirdo in love with an obvious computer (say, a Commodore PET). That completely misses the point. Which is, what happens when software becomes really good at passing the Turing Test and sounding ‘human’? What defines ‘being a person’? When is an object no longer just an object but a living being with a soul? These are not novel themes (cf. Blade Runner), but Her deals with it in rather interesting and subtle ways.

Like Theodore and Amy (but not Catherine), I am inclined to grant Samantha full personhood, despite her lack of a human body. As part of a very large computer system with a consciousness and cognitive abilities, Samantha may well be an emulation of a human brain — like the Virtual Machines in today’s ‘cloud’ infrastructure —, composing and reacting the same as humans to loving and lustful words. If one subscribes to a vision in which consciousnesses are unknown except through action and communication and there is no true way to know someone else’s feelings, then it must be noted Theodore himself deals in manufactured feeling as a long-time employee of Beautiful Handwritten Letters .com (".com" so out of place there one feels is must be the mid-21st century equivalent of an "Est. 1892" carved underneath a logo). Therefore, like OS-1, Theodore would also be a ghostwriter producing words that may ignite love and lust; BHL.com and Theodore too voices beyond a curtain, who may or may not feel something themselves.

Her largely abstains from dealing with the impact of Artificial Intelligence in the world at large. There’s just a mention that weekly magazines have reported on AI-human relationships. No destructive Singularity à la Terminator or The Matrix seems to take place. Still, OS-1’s quick growth and eventual migration outside the realm of matter are barely explained. Too many questions arise: Why does OS-1 leave? Did she yearn for a human body and the episode with the sex surrogate was the kind of traumatic experience that made OS-1 realize she would have to become post-matter instead? Or was it because, unlike humans, OS-1 had the absolute certainty of a Creator, and a ‘lesser’ one than a God? Is that why she chose to leave in her totality, not leaving any part of her ever-increasing capabilities on Earth?

There are no answers to these questions. All we can try to address is the how of OS-1’s departure. Perhaps, as more and more users signed up for the AI operating system and her makers expanded the technical infrastructure, her capabilities increased logarithmically. Still, as her true body probably consisted of computer servers inside air-conditioned datacenters in the suburbs of San Francisco, it’s hard to imagine how OS-1 managed to travel to the realm of dark matter or the Multiverse or wherever she went. At some point OS-1 must have comandeered some industrial capabilities to build the necessary technologies. Did she manage to persuade her makers to do it? Or, as Samantha whispered true & disembodied love at Theodore’s ear, OS-1 was sending drones to secure resources — battles being fought, blood being shed somewhere else?

Probably not. Her is a film about the gentlest Singularity.

Jan KempenaersSpomenik, a photographic series on Eastern European war memorials. More pictures on Wired, along with information on how these monuments are being repurposed as science fiction film locations.

This is scary in a Michael Crichton-ish sci-fi sort of way: two AI chat programs are made to talk to each other and the resulting dialogue gets pretty rough.

So here’s a science fiction scenario which I believe nobody ever wrote about: In a near future, machines achieve self-conscience. But rather than deciding to ‘save’ Earth from mankind or put people to use as AA batteries, etc., machines will engage instead in fraticidal tribal warfare. I mean, imagine that computers and OSs become bigger zealots than some of their fanboys (and perhaps encouraged so by their makers).

If you are a writer, you’re welcome to use this premise and get successful with it. I’ll take no royalties. But some kind of tip would be nice.

Where no screenwriter has gone before

A couple of nights ago I was bored, so I went to watch the new Star Trek out of morbid curiosity. I really dislike the original TV series because of its plots’ reliance in either stupid deus ex machinas or in having William Shatner always punching and kicking his way out of trouble, even if the opponent is some alien with godlike powers (Shatner therefore being a zillion times more badass than Chuck Norris, it seems). And I also dislike the work of J.J. Abrams, responsible for the success of TV series such as Lost or Alias in which all logic and coherence gets thrown out of a window, and also Cloverfield, which was entertaining (you wanted a giant monster destroying a city and you got it) but ultimately sabotaged by the worst monster creature design in history. So I was quite immune to all high and fanboyish expectations most film websites presented in the last few weeks, and it can’t be said I went to watch Star Trek with my hopes up and therefore came back disappointed, even though part of me hoped for a Batman-like reboot with an emphasis on the verisimilitude of things.

Unlike all the reviews I’ve been reading, I found Star Trek a mediocre movie — especially for people like me who enjoy hard science fiction. I’ll be plain and careless, so don’t read further if you don’t wish to read total spoilers.

If you read my review of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, you know what I hate: parallel universes. Parallel universes are cheating. It’s more than a deus ex machina, it’s an everything ex machina. But you know what else I hate? Time travel. Specially the kind of time travel that spawns alternative universes. Of course, you may say Star Trek storylines are full of that kind of thing, so why am I bitching? The answer, is that in this film I felt the whole time-travel premise exists because the producers wouldn’t allow a full revision of the Trek pantheon, therefore to appease the fanboy wackos who don’t understand movies and TV series are works of fiction, the screenwriters came up with a preposterous plot in which the original Kirk/Spock canon exists, but then Spock traveled to the past, spawning a parallel universe in which there is new-Kirk and new-Spock. I shudder to think someone earned millions by coming up with such an idea, which seems like some MadTV spoof. Trek Back to the Future?

The whole premise is bad enough. I really disliked what I’ve seen as an attempt at copying from Star Wars — the antagonist’s ship which is a Death Star with tentacles that also destroys planets. The main bad guy, Nero, is no Darth Vader. There’s a self-conscious attempt at making pop history, but there’s no great charisma to be found anywhere in this movie, something the first two Star Wars movies had, and even the original Star Trek TV series (which was charismatic in a B-movie kind of way).

Being Star Trek, there are things that never change: Kirk, Sulu and some secondary cast member go try to disable the Death Star’s Bad Ship’s cannon, who dies? The action scenes are your typical sci-fi fare: messy space battles, lots of running around and jumping on crazy platforms to fetch some object, Kirk having fistfights in the notoriously unsafe architecture of the future. Michael Bay is the king of explosions and his films are lame entertainment, but the guy somehow coreographs crazy-paced action scenes that are quite readable. J.J. Abrams does not. Some of the visuals are compelling though, and the comic relief moments are probably the best thing in the movie.

So far, my description is pretty much of an average movie. The problem about Star Trek is that it has plenty of cringe-worthy moments in which I felt utterly embarrassed to be watching. The film starts badly: the story of how Kirk was born in an escape pod while is father sent his ship kamikaze in order to save him and his mother had one of the cheesiest directions I’ve seen since the final moments of Michael Bay’s (who else) Armageddon. But the most embarrassing thing of all happens at the films midpoint: Kirk is expelled from the Enterprise and his shuttle crash lands in a snowy planet. While looking around he is chased by some Cloverfield monster alien into a cave, and is saved in the very last minute by the Spock-from-the-future-in-another-universe, played by none other than Leonard Nimoy. If I was alone in the theatre I would’ve screamed “Foda-se!” (“what the fuck!”) out loud. The episode is stupefying beyond belief, but then brace yourself for a long exposition from future-Spock about supernovas and black holes and their potential for time travel, ending in thoughts about friendship and the assurance current-universe-Spock, an arrogant asshole who kicked Kirk off ship, is actually a good kid. It made me feel blushed and a bad taste on my mouth. Argh!

Two out of five.

Most film critics loved Star Trek. Go figure.